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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sense, Sensibility and Perception: There is no accounting for Taste

[Also available as a podcast]

A colleague of mine has no taste. None at all - either he lost it in early childhood or he never had it, he can't exactly remember. 

I am not being mean about his clothing or sense of style - I am being quite literal. His taste buds do not work at all. When he eats, there is only texture, no flavor. "Food is simply fuel" as he says it - there is no particular enjoyment to any particular food, just the satisfaction of no longer being hungry.

"How horrible," I thought, "to never be able to taste chocolate, fruit or delicious, exotic foods". 

And then a few years ago, as a side effect of some bug going around, I completely lost my sense of taste as well. Usually your sense of taste is diminished when you have a cold, as smell is a big part of the sensation. But it wasn't that - my taste buds actually stopped working completely - and the smell part of it went too. Nothing but texture was left - not even spicy food registered, other than some watering eyes.

Fortunately it only lasted around 4 weeks, but I can tell you I was worried it might not come back. Life without the taste of good food...and chocolate! Of course, I could imagine it very well as I was experiencing it first-hand, but I did not like the prospect of life without tasting. While I suffered the effects, food was definitely just fuel. No enjoyment at all.

I was thinking a lot about my colleague during that time - wondering if he missed it, or simply did not know what he was missing. 

Other friends or colleagues are color-blind, some red/green, some other mixes, and a rare few have strictly black and white vision. A few others are partially or entirely blind, either through accidents, disease or blind since birth. Countless others wear glasses, as I did until laser surgery - when I had reached the point where things were still a bit blurry at the "best" setting on the optician's fancy machine.

Some other friends and family are deaf, either mostly or partly - and my kids certainly have selective hearing when there are jobs to do around the house!

I have not come across anyone personally who has a diminished sense of touch, but I understand that there are many people with this condition as well.

When we are dealing with people, we never know exactly how they each experience the world - what their perspectives are - and not just with the physical senses. 

One thing that is undeniable, though, is that your perception of the world around you affects how you respond in any given situation - and it also affects your approach to projects and challenges.

Sense & Perception

In projects, we are not just limited to working with differences in people's physical senses (sight, sound, taste, touch). People each approach the world with different perceptions and attitudes, which are based on a combination of their physical sensations, experience, background, education, expectations, language, culture - and which side of the table you are sitting on. 

I have been to a number of countries where the behaviors were different than "home" - and unprepared, this could (and sometimes did) lead to embarrassing or even potentially dangerous situations. In India, for example, I let a snake charmer put a cobra across my shoulders for a photo after I asked him if the snake had been de-venomed, as I was quite nervous and risk-averse. He nodded. I later found out that nodding meant "No" and wobbling your head sideways meant "Yes". Oops! 

Words in one language may sound identical to words in another language - and have a completely different (sometimes offensive) meaning. So be careful when you are interacting with people with different primary languages, and try to learn their language - or at least enough to avoid anything that might be offensive. 

However, even if you share the same primary language, the same words can have different meanings from one company to the next - don't just assume that they understand the jargon you are using.

The key thing to remember is that practically no-one will experience things in exactly the same way you do - and therefore they will have a different experience and understanding of the same event. Therefore, you should always be looking to achieve understanding - to verify that you understand what they are saying - and they understand what you are saying.

Sounds simple when you say it fast - but of course it is trickier than that.

Tip: "You got that, right?" does not count as verifying understanding. If they nod and smile, it might just mean they didn't understand your language at all and they think you are paying for lunch.

Depending on the situation, you may need to use a variety of approaches, including:
  • Paraphrase what you heard and repeat it back to them in a simpler way, or without jargon.
  • Ask more questions around the topic, especially if you are not entirely clear about it yourself.
  • Draw pictures and diagrams to check if your concepts agree - even if the words, phrases or language seem to be an obstacle.
  • It is important to simplify - and not over-complicate.
  •  and so on. You may need to be quite creative depending on the audience.
Another way to put it is that you need to deal with different people in different ways, and learning how to do that is a key leadership skill. The more you know about them, the easier it is - if you meet someone for the first time, being a good observer of people definitely helps.

When you have worked with someone for a long time, you get to know each other very well, including a fair appreciation of how they perceive the world around them and how they might respond in a given situation. This helps you to communicate more effectively and efficiently - and interact without too much friction. When you have meet someone new, it can take time (a little or a lot) to get to a common ground.


"It just makes sense! Why don't they get it?"

What you think and what they think from observing the same thing can be completely different based on your perception and expectations.

For most of my career, I have been on the "vendor" side of the table - but recently, I have been able to experience the end-customer side, as a project manager working with various vendor/suppliers. For some, it might be tempting to play power games, but really - that would not be professional (or nice) - and besides if you are on a short term contract you will be back on the other side of the table soon enough (and possibly working for that vendor!)

After all, you are both there to solve some problem, deliver a successful project outcome and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

What I have found in my career so far is that there are several types of vendors, and several types of customers - and each have distinctly different perspectives. While the reality is somewhere in the middle, here are the extremes:

  • Do-the-least-you-can vendor: This vendor will do the bare minimum to deliver, cut costs wherever possible, and will conform to documented scope but not look at the bigger picture. This vendor may nickle-and-dime the customer over minor change requests, and lose focus on how the product/result will be used. You don't want this one to build the bridge you drive over every morning.
  • Let's-get-it-done-right vendor: This vendor actively looks out for the interests of the customer, taking those extra steps and asking more questions so they understand the big picture as well as the details. This vendor works to ensure the requirements are well defined, and they are usually in it for the long haul with a lasting relationship with the customer. This vendor also needs to be careful to not over-deliver and overrun costs, but they may accept some overages as "relationship investment", if it takes a bit extra to make sure things are done right.
  • Give-me-everything-I-want-but-cheap customer: This customer often has unrealistic demands and pushes the vendor for everything they can squeeze out of them, as cheaply as possible. They can be quite challenging to work with, and getting acceptance sign off is usually delayed by "you need to do this one more thing first". They don't tend to get a good result, and have few long-term relationships with vendors, unless they are locked into a long-term support contract (and believe me, the vendor is probably counting the days!).
  • Let's-work-together-to-do-it-right customer: This customer has a realistic view of the world and understands there are different types of vendors. They will also generally know their own business well and their own requirements - and are generally reasonable in working together with the vendor to define the scope and project schedule. They will usually work closely with the vendor during the project, but it is likely more a collaborative relationship than strictly oversight. This customer may have been burned by "Do-the-least-you-can" vendors in the past, so they may be pragmatic about contractual details and risk management - including contractual penalties. However, if you are a "Let's-get-it-done-right" vendor and perform well, you are likely to form a long lasting relationship, do more business - and potentially have less punitive contracts as trust is built with the vendor.
Although no person or company is perfect, those that work to "do a good job right" tend to be more successful in the long run - they build loyalty with their staff and their customers. If you match this type of company with a "Let's-work-together" customer, you generally get a better outcome as you both work together well towards the common goal. An additional benefit is that if you do run into the inevitable bumps in the road, the customer is more likely to say "let's sit down and talk about it" rather than "I'll see you in court!"

Although I have been on the vendor side most of my career, I can say that I have generally worked for let's-get-it-done-right vendor companies. I have spent quite a few years in several companies like this, and the reason that I stayed so long is that my values aligned strongly with theirs - to do a good job, and do it right. I have always worked to see the bigger picture for both sides - what works for US (collectively), and what solves the problem? I usually found myself straddling the fence and being the customer advocate - looking both at what was best for the company, and what was best for the customer. 

Do you know where I put the most weight? On the customer. If we do a good job meeting their needs (reasonably, within scope and budget), we all win!


When working with customers, stakeholders and your project team, one of the most valuable skills that you have as a Project Manager is to be able to empathize - to learn to understand where the other person (or vendor, or customer) is coming from, and how things look from their side of the conversation. If you can truly appreciate things from their perspective, it can help smooth out relationships and defuse some potentially nasty situations before they slide off the rails. 

Of course, we cannot read minds, but we can become good observers of people. And there is one more thing that will make you smarter and become a better Project Manager and leader of people.

Ask questions. 

Not silly ones, leading ones or left-field ones, but sincere questions that show you really want to learn what they have to say. The better listener you are (and this involves asking questions - not just sitting in silence), the wiser you will appear - and eventually become.

The wisest person in the room did not come into it "knowing everything" - they came in as an open-minded, empty vessel and asked plenty of good questions to those who did.

Incidentally, the most important question you can ask in a situation where you are trying to come to an agreement is "did I understand you correctly?" after paraphrasing what you think they said.

Good luck with your projects, and keep asking questions, with your mind, eyes, ears and all your other senses wide open.


  1. Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Gary,

    You have a new admirer. Well written, thought-provoking article. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Simply marvellous. Deep thoughts expressed in most simple manner.